As Australians, perhaps our most sacred right—nay, duty—as citizens of this fine land is to chastise, satirise and otherwise bastardise our elected officials. It is part of our national psyche; we’re a bunch of good-natured malcontents who are generally happy to tell the stranger beside us on the morning train about what a shabby job those fat cats in Canberra (or Sydney, or Melbourne, or Brisbane …) are doing and how the country will be lucky to survive their incumbency, et cetera, et cetera. And we all do it—show me an Australian who claims not to complain vocally about the government and I will show you a liar. We do this comfortable in the knowledge that the worst thing that is likely to happen to us as a result is a mild war of words with a fellow malcontent—even the most vocal political dissenters in Australia are not rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to the Gulag.
This is something we take all too much for granted. Read the story in the big issue (or below the images) to read a story about a comedic activists who has found a way to chip away at oppression.
A Meeting With The Moustache Brothers
On 7 November, Burma will stage elections for the first time in 20 years. While many believe the military junta’s hold on power won’t be wrestled free, writer David Carroll and photographer Elizabeth Bull met a group of activists using humour to chip away at their oppressive rulers.
The citizens of Burma – officially the Union of Myanmar, a nation of 50 million that neighbours China, Laos, Thailand, Bangladesh and India – do not enjoy freedom of expression. Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a paranoid, oppressive and corrupt military government, mostly known in the West for violently suppressing legitimate protests and hindering UN recovery efforts following Cyclone Nargis in 2008. In 2007, dozens of people were killed and hundreds more imprisoned for protesting an increase in the price of petrol.
When travelling in Burma with my wife, Liz, we were fortunate enough to meet an unusual band of opponents of the military regime. These were not guerrilla soldiers or outspoken opposition politicians with a death wish, but rather a troupe of ageing vaudeville comedians who refer to themselves as the Moustache Brothers. These audacious warrior-comics, who have taken it upon themselves to speak out against tyranny and thus bring it to the attention of the wider world. Imagine Gandhi with a joy buzzer.
After seeing their performance (at which we were the only attendees), we asked if we could return the next day to talk to them about their experiences and take some photos. Graciously, they agreed. We arrived at the Moustache Brothers’ house in the city of Mandalay on a sweltering afternoon and were greeted by Lu Maw, the zany and energetic frontman of the troupe. He welcomed us, veritable strangers, into his house like two old friends.
The walls of the room were adorned with portraits of imprisoned pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, along with clippings from foreign newspapers detailing the Brothers’ various exploits and, strangely enough, movie posters of the Hugh Grant romantic comedy, About a Boy. (Maw later explained that one of the Brothers, Par Par Lay, is mentioned by name in the film, and he had the pirate DVD to prove it.)
Maw hurriedly led us past this treasure-trove of memorabilia to an innocuous-looking fuse box on the wall, as if it were the most important thing in the room. “This means Government Power,” he said, pointing at a small red light on the fuse box. “Now see what happens when we use only Government Power.” He threw a switch and the room fell dark, except for a feeble fluorescent light in the middle of the room and the red light on the fuse box itself.
Liz glanced anxiously at her camera’s light meter – Government Power is not conducive to fine photography. The only way to have reliable power, Maw explained, is to have your own generator or a supply of car batteries. Even in big cities the power may be on for only a few hours a day, or not at all.
“We are blacklisted,” Maw explained as he showed us to some chairs beside a small stage assembled from old shipping pallets. “You know, ‘blacklisted’. B-L-A-C-K-L-I-S-T-E-D.” Maw had a quirky habit of spelling out words in conversation. “The government has taken away our livelihood by blacklisting us, which means that nobody in Burma can hire us to perform. We are now only allowed to perform in English, and only for foreigners.”
Once well-known entertainers throughout Burma, the Brothers are now virtually forbidden from travelling. They perform their nightly show in their garage for foreign tourists sympathetic to their politics.
The problems for the Moustache Brothers began when the other members of the trio, Lay and Lu Zaw, dared to tell anti-government jokes during a 1996 performance. Seized by the ‘KGB’ (as Maw describes the authorities), the plucky performers were sentenced to seven years in a labour camp because, as reported by the government-controlled press at the time, “they satirised and mischievously attacked the government, disparaging its dignity and making it a laughing-stock”.
A campaign led by Amnesty International (which was supported by some high-profile international comedians saw to their early release in 2002, but since then the troupe has essentially been under house arrest.
A small, greying man with wispy moustache entered the room from the back. “That’s Par Par Lay, the jailbird!” Maw exclaimed. “You know, J-A-I-L-B-I-R-D.” Lay, who speaks no English, approached us enthusiastically with a warm smile and vigorously shook our hands vigorously. He then motioned towards the camera in Liz’s hands, walked to the other side of the room and began to chain himself up, grinning broadly the whole time. Not even his own arrest is off-limits as a topic for mischief and satire.
While Liz was photographing the enchained Lay, I spoke to Maw about the coming general election. We had found this a hot topic of discussion with any English-speaking Burmese who was sure that the ‘KGB’ wasn’t listening in. Maw met my query with a bemused smile. “Let me put it this way: the government at the moment is like Myanmar Beer. If we do get a new government after the election, it might call itself French Champagne, but it will still just be Myanmar Beer.” He laughed at his joke, but the sadness was plain in his eyes – he had seen this all before.
We thanked the Brothers for their time and started to leave. “Please tell people about us,” Maw implored. “The tourists are our fortress. If the tourists stop coming, who knows what might happen.”
The Mandalay heat was fierce, so on our way back to our hotel we stopped at a small dark cafe – evidently lit by Government Power – for a cool drink. We ordered iced coffees and paid with a 1000-kyat note, the smallest I had on me. I handed the tattered piece of green paper to the proprietor without a second thought – after all, 1000 kyat is worth little more than a dollar. But the confronting fact is that many Burmese families are required to survive on this measly sum every day. And any Burmese citizen who dares to publicly object to this injustice, or countless other injustices, is guaranteed an extended period of turning large rocks into smaller ones in a government labour camp.
This, however, will not always be the case if the Moustache Brothers and others like them have anything to do with it. As Mark Twain put it: “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.”
David Carroll is a freelance writer. Elizabeth Bull is a professional photographer who runs Lizzy C Photography (lizzyc.com.au). The Melbourne-based husband-and-wife team can often be found travelling the world with camera and pen in hand.
Our last Big Issue magazine feature can be seen here.